- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

Iran's charter membership in President Bush's "axis of evil" hasn't prevented Tehran from improving its relations with a variety of states, including longtime regional rivals and close U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.
While North Korea and Iraq face diplomatic isolation, Iran has managed to expand security and commercial ties with its Arab neighbors, the European Union, Russia, China and several Central Asian states.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, during cordial visits to Austria and Greece last week, announced he would set off on a five-nation Central Asian tour to "improve bilateral relations" with front-line states in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
"Iranians are very good at keeping track of the score of the ballgame," said Daniel Brumberg, a Georgetown University professor of government who has written on Iran's foreign and domestic policies.
"On the international front, they have pursued a policy driven by pure pragmatism, and they have a lot of successes to show for it," he said.
The successes have come in the face of U.S. concern over Tehran's weapons buildup, its support for radical Islamic militant groups fighting Israel, and charges that Iran is trying to undermine the fragile interim regime in neighboring Afghanistan.
Zalmay M. Khalilzad, the National Security Council point man for the region, said at a conference on U.S.-Iranian relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week that the administration supported a "prosperous and democratic Iran," but blamed Tehran for the continuing freeze in bilateral ties.
"The policies of the current regime both at home and abroad are responsible for the poor state of the country's economy and the hostile relations with the United States," Mr. Khalilzad said.
Robert Walpole, head of strategic and nuclear programs at the National Intelligence Council, said at a Senate hearing last week that U.S. analysts rated the threat from Iran's missile program on a par with the threat from North Korea.
"Our concerns about Iran pursuing an [intercontinental ballistic missile program] have gone up," Mr. Walpole told lawmakers last Monday.
But private analysts say fewer and fewer countries are following the U.S. line on Iran. Tehran, they say, has won points for its support of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Its massive energy reserves and its large consumer market also have proved attractive abroad.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who met with Mr. Khatami last Tuesday in Vienna, Austria, made clear that leading European nations were not ready to isolate Iran.
"We are more engaged with Iranian leaders than the United States, and we want to try to help the progressive forces in the country," Mr. Solana said.
A visit to Italy by Mr. Khatami in 1999 was the first to a European country by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Since then, Mr. Khatami has visited France, Germany and Japan, while Britain America's staunchest ally in the fight against terrorism dispatched Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Tehran in September in a bid for better relations.
Mr. Khatami's welcome in Austria was so warm that the Viennese daily Die Presse chided Austrian President Thomas Klestil for not confronting the Iranian leader on human rights or terrorism.
"Klestil must be able to distance himself from the American 'axis' nonsense without completely, uncritically embracing the representative of an oppressive regime," the paper wrote.
It is not just Western Europe that has broken with Washington over Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear he will not curtail rapidly warming ties with Iran, despite a determined effort since September 11 to curry favor with Washington.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim leader, was warmly welcomed in Tehran just a day after the Bush administration accused Iranian officials of attempting to undermine his authority.
Giandomenico Picco, a former U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs who has dealt with many Middle East issues, says Iran's ties to its neighbors in the region have improved noticeably after a long ostracism in response to the 1979 revolution.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been considered regional rivals, in part because of Saudi financial backing for Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and in part because of the religious competition between the Sunni form of Islam that reigns in the Saudi state and the Shi'ite form that dominates in Iran.
But just last week, the two countries held their fourth annual bilateral trade fair, symbolizing the burgeoning relationship between the two.
"I expect Saudi-Iranian relations to continue to blossom," Mr. Picco said.
Pakistan and Iran, longtime rivals for influence in the region, also have improved their ties. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Tehran in November, and energy ministers from the two countries agreed last month to carry out a preliminary study for a proposed $4 billion gas pipeline running from Iran to India.
Even Washington appears far from unanimous in taking a hard line against Tehran.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said in a speech last week that he favored "a much better relationship than we currently enjoy" with Iran.
He urged the Bush administration to drop its opposition to Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization and said he was personally ready to meet Iranian parliamentarians in the United States or overseas to discuss improving bilateral ties.


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